They say that tragedy + time = comedy. If that’s true, we’re going to need a couple hundred more years to find anything funny about this historical event. On this anniversary of the start of the three-day struggle, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s time for party hats. It was the deadliest battle in the costliest war America ever fought (and we’ve been involved in some doozies). But if we celebrate also by commemorating or solemnizing, I think we’re doing right by those lost on both sides.
Now for the fun part: Some great Civil War–related reads:
1. Team of Rivals
Doris Kearns Goodwin hit the (quad?)fecta with this one: Pulitzer Prize, #1 on the NYT list, a movie deal (with Spielberg, no less), and a blurb from a sitting president. Dang, girl. Not since Nixon joked, “Sock it to me” on Laugh In has someone landed such a coup.
This book is not, strictly speaking, a Civil War book, but you won’t get the Civil War if you don’t get Lincoln and this is the best way to make that happen.
Kearns’s sources are solid, her analysis trenchant, and her writing a delight. Get yourself a Goodwin.
2. Confederates in the Attic
Ever wonder why the Civil War continues to fascinate so many? Tony Horwitz digs to the bottom of the war’s continuing hold over generations of descendants of the conflict. This is a page-turner of a romp through modern-day reenactments, Klan rallies, and a pilgrimage to Appomattox (yes, dropping by Gettysburg along the way) that somehow manages to be funny.
This is a great gift for the good ol’ boy in your life.
3. This Republic of Suffering
Think of all the soldiers who went to Afghanistan and Iraq from 2001 to 2013. Now imagine the impact on our country if all of them had been killed. Now imagine if it had been three times as many. That’s about the equivalent death toll in percentage of Americans killed in the Civil War. Blessedly, it is hard to conceive of such a thing.
But this book does. It will make you cry. Do not try to read it in public or if you are depressed or recently bereaved. Drew Giplin Faust reminds us that our remembrance of the Civil War ought not to be about dressing up and playing soldier or watching Dukes of Hazzard or casual racism. These were real lives and too many ended too soon.
4. Army of the Potomac
These can be hard to find in print, but Catton’s trilogy is the must-have work on the Civil War. You can get it in Kindle or, for the Civil War buff in your life, find a well-loved hardcover set on Ebay or your local used bookstore.
One reviewer quips, “If every historian wrote like Bruce Catton, no one would read fiction.” I won’t follow him off that cliff, but I will agree that Catton spins a good yarn.
5. The State of Jones
You’ll likely not have heard of Newton Knight unless you’ve read this book, and you’ll not have known about this book except for this blog (you’re welcome) and the new film starring Matthew McConaughey, The Free State of Jones. Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t have a lot of nice things to say about the film, but the book got a starred review from Publishers Weekly, so crank up the AC, make yourself some popcorn and learn about one of the most intriguing tales of the Civil War.
It seems Mr. Knight was so persuaded by the South’s claim that it had a right to secede that he led the secession of Jones County, Mississippi. He raised the Union flag over the courthouse and fought a guerilla war against the Confederacy. His belief in racial equality was apparently quite genuine, as one look at his descendants will tell you, but he had a thoroughly not modern approach to equality between men and women, as one look at his other descendants will tell you. No one can be right about everything.
If the Civil War doesn’t fire your cannon, not to worry: We’ll be back tomorrow with more great answers to that best of questions: What should I read next?